Thomas Jefferson’s Banishment from New York’s City Hall Is Bad News for the Jews

October 25, 2021 | Samuel Goldman
About the author: Samuel Goldman is an associate professor of political science and executive director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at the George Washington University.

By unanimous vote, New York City officials decided last week to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson from the chamber where the city council meets. While the case against the third president as a slaveholder is well known, the statue’s removal, Samuel Goldman writes, is a repudiation of the Declaration of Independence that he authored. It is also an insult to Uriah P. Levy, the Jewish naval hero who in 1833 commissioned the sculpture of Jefferson of which this one is a replica:

The reduction of American history to an unbroken story of racial oppression comes at particular cost to Jews. Because we have been among the greatest beneficiaries of liberal institutions, we are unavoidably targets when those institutions abandon or reject their liberal mission. A widely despised and persecuted people who thrived in America like nowhere else, Jews do not fit into the sharp distinction between oppressor and oppressed that characterizes ideological “antiracism.” Therefore, Jewish experiences must either be ignored or reduced to a monolithic conception of white supremacy.

It’s no coincidence that former council member (now state assemblyman) Charles Barron, who began the campaign to remove the Jefferson statue twenty years ago, is among the most anti-Semitic figures in city politics. An ally of the New Black Panther Party, Barron has asserted that the “real” Semites are black and accused Israel of “genocide.” Even if he’s not targeting Levy specifically, Barron is an undisguised enemy of the pluralistic patriotism that Jefferson articulated and Levy did so much to promote. Barron doesn’t want the statue moved, “contextualized,” or supplemented by other likenesses. He wants it destroyed.

The question for Assemblyman Barron and everyone else who made removal of the statue their cause celèbre is: by destroying the statue, do you mean to attack the man or the symbol? Do you mean to attack his slaveholding, or his striving for a free and democratic republic? Sometimes, it’s hard to be sure.

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